Why are prisoners on death row so hopeful?

Opinion: Those who are not undone by solitary confinement share certain characteristics

‘Joseph Wood spent two hours gasping in Arizona’s death chamber before he succumbed to the lethal effects of the chemicals introduced to his bloodstream. The nature of his demise caused widespread revulsion.’ Photograph: Reuters/Arizona Department of Corrections/

‘Joseph Wood spent two hours gasping in Arizona’s death chamber before he succumbed to the lethal effects of the chemicals introduced to his bloodstream. The nature of his demise caused widespread revulsion.’ Photograph: Reuters/Arizona Department of Corrections/

Fri, Aug 8, 2014, 00:01

Several botched executions in the US have reignited the debate over capital punishment.

Recently, Joseph Wood spent two hours gasping in Arizona’s death chamber before he succumbed to the lethal effects of the chemicals introduced to his bloodstream. The nature of his demise caused widespread revulsion.

There is a macabre twist to this story. When Wood murdered his estranged girlfriend and her father 25 years ago the police arrived at the crime scene and he was shot several times.

Prompt medical attention meant his life was saved until the state could determine when it was time to end it. The vast majority of offenders who are sentenced to death are never executed. Instead they spend years on death row, typically in solitary confinement, while the legal process grinds slowly to a conclusion.

Occasionally release ensues because subsequent inquiries render the original conviction unsafe. More often the sentence is commuted to one of life imprisonment without any likelihood of parole.

Small boxes

Confined in small boxes made of concrete and steel, these prisoners must find ways to cope with huge periods of time unbroken by meaningful human engagement. What might be bearable in company or in comfort becomes an agonising trial. Some are unequal to the task and attempt to regain control of their destinies through suicide. A few waive their rights of appeal and demand that the sentence of the court be implemented. The remainder develop a variety of strategies that insulate them, to differing degrees, from the potential harms of prolonged isolation.

As part of the research for a recently completed book I corresponded with and interviewed men in prison isolation units in several US states. Some were on death row and others had been segregated for administrative reasons.

I learned that prisoners who are not undone by solitary confinement share certain characteristics. They believe that, no matter how tightly constraining the environment, how they respond lies within their control. They realise that, at a fundamental level, their values and attitudes remain beyond the reach of the authorities.

Ideology and a sense of connection – however attenuated – provide a foundation for endurance. Many find God. The prisoner with faith is part of a community of believers, even if congregation is never possible.

Those who cope can withstand the rigours of self-examination, finding that the fruits of introspection are not poisonous. They become indifferent to their guards, learning that hatred is corrosive and that it will be to their ultimate disadvantage if they cannot achieve a degree of emotional distance. Rage, especially when impotent, is suffocating. Solitary prisoners attempt to fill their days with purposeful activities. For those who are literate and have access to books, reading becomes an important way of passing time.

Others devise exercise regimes that do not require equipment or a training partner. Prisoners who emerge intact from long periods of arduous solitude rise in their own esteem and in that of their fellows. They become the standards against which fortitude is measured.

No matter how grim the prospects prisoners are tenaciously hopeful. But when they talk about hope it is not freighted with the burden of expectation.

Positive orientation

Theirs is a positive orientation to the future and a yearning for progress rather than the anticipation of a specific event coming to pass at a particular time. Even if built on slender foundations, and ultimately thwarted, hope sustains and inspires. As one prisoner who had been awaiting execution for almost 30 years told me, “I am positive. I am hopeful. Against great odds hope springs eternal.” How prisoners in solitary confinement cope will excite little public sympathy, especially if they have committed heinous crimes and ended up on death row. But the resilience they display may act as a prompt to reconsider what such treatment is intended to achieve.

Why punish longer and harder if the limits to human endurance are so elastic? In addition, and perhaps of more immediate significance, if capital punishment in the US is abolished, what will replace it? Ian O’Donnell is professor of criminology at UCD. His book, Prisoners, Solitude, and Time will be published in October by Oxford University Press

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